NLP Column – 3rd August 2016
Steven Coney writes…..
NON-LEAGUE fans across the country, rejoice! No longer must you spend your Saturday afternoons traipsing around shopping centres – proper football’s back!
Of course we’ve had pre-season for the last month but with nothing riding on the results, it’s not quite the same as the real thing.
It may only be a few months since your side last kicked a competitive ball but as ever in Non-League, a lot of things have changed.
In the National League, we waved goodbye to Cheltenham Town and Grimsby Town and welcomed back Dagenham & Redbridge and York City.
Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham have proven in the past two seasons that relegated sides can bounce back at the first attempt but it’s far from easy.
Luckily for the Daggers, they have one of the shrewdest managers in the business at this level and you’d be a fool for backing against John Still.
The man who masterminded Luton Town’s return to the Football League knows Non-League inside out and it would be no surprise to see the Daggers at the top.
York boss Jackie McNamara certainly has an impressive footballing CV – over 250 appearances for Celtic and 33 caps for Scotland – but as we all know, that doesn’t mean much in the National League.
Plenty of big names have come… and plenty have failed. Credit must go to McNamara for sticking with the Minstermen and wanting a crack at taking them back into the Football League.
And while he may not have known too much about this level of football, he has certainly made some shrewd signings which should stand them in good stead for the long campaign ahead.
Forest Green Rovers, defeated in the promotion final at Wembley last season, are the bookies’ favourites and you can see why.
With ex-Peterborough and Swindon boss Mark Cooper now at the helm, you would expect them to be a bit tougher than in recent years.
They’ve brought in some youth at the back and despite losing the imposing Jon Parkin, signing Matt Tubbs could be a masterstroke.
If Cooper can get him back to anywhere near his best, he’ll be in with a shot of the golden boot and will provide a massive boost to Rovers.
Much like Forest Green, Eastleigh will be tipped again due to their generous budget and with the hungry Chris Todd in charge, they have a chance.
Gateshead and Wrexham have both recruited heavily this summer and if they gel, they could both mount a challenge while Tranmere and Lincoln have also got the necessary qualities at their disposal.
If the National League looks tough this season, the North division is arguably as difficult to call, if not more so.
FC Halifax Town are favourites and with ex-North Ferriby chief Billy Heath at the helm, an instant return to Non-League’s top flight isn’t out of the question.
Heath won promotion with Ferriby last term and has taken a number of those players with him to the Shay but they’ll need to be at their best in the ultra competitive North division.
AFC Fylde, who lost to Heth’s Ferriby in the promotion final last term, have gone full-time and Dave Challinor will be desperate to take his side into the National League.
Harrogate Town have recruited well while Kidderminster and Altrincham will be hoping to do well after relegation last season.
Promoted clubs Darlington 1883 and Salford City will have momentum and high expectations – it’s a tough one to call.
In the South, it’s also extremely even although Ebbsfleet United will once again start the campaign as favourites.
Whitehawk, Chelmsford, Maidenhead and Welling will all expecting to compete but there is room for one or two surprise packages to make their mark.
At Step 3, the Northern Premier League and Ryman Premier League have another week to wait (sorry!) but the Southern League also kick off today.
Full-time outfit Basingstoke, managed by Non-League legend Terry Brown, will be among the favourites but expect the likes of Leamington, Weymouth, Slough, Kettering and Hayes & Yeading to also be strong.
Regardless of the team you support, it looks like another cracking season of Non-League action is finally upon us!